Title: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
Author: Erik Larson (website)
Publication Date: May 2011
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The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming–yet wholly sinister–Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.
When Dodd accepts the phone call from President Roosevelt back in his study in Chicago, he has no idea what is about to unfold. His life, a somewhat peaceful farming/teaching life, is about to be put on standby so he can accept the honorable, yet seemingly unwanted position of American ambassador to Berlin. Dodd is very steady and set in his ways – he is simply a history professor who wants to finish his lifelong work – a complete Southern history called Old South – before he dies. Throughout the book (mostly in the beginning), Dodd emphasizes that writing and researching this passion is all he wants to do. I found this interesting, especially in comparison to how others treated him because of this dream. The State Department, not too keen on his new position regardless, only appears to sink deeper into loathing for him. The Berliners and German government don’t know quite what to do with this man in his plain suits and American car. His lack of decoration and selfishness (for lack of a better word) sets him apart in the worst way in his new host country. When making my notes for this review, I kept wondering if Dodd set himself up to fail by rejecting the expected living style of diplomats or if any man in his position would have been unsuccessful in his work due to the times.
I don’t mean to say that Dodd was unsuccessful as an American ambassador. In In the Garden, he does struggle against forces in his home country and the host, making it difficult for him to do his job well. It all depended on the circumstances.
One of those circumstances was his dear daughter Martha. Martha reminds me of the rebellious stage each child progresses through at some point in their life; unfortunately, hers appeared during her father’s term in Berlin. At first, I loved her free and vibrant ways – her descriptions of the parties and major characters in this point in history were fascinating. However, her partying became a little painful for me to read as she sank deeper into denial about the treatment of the German people by their government. She slowly learned what was actually going on, but she didn’t want to admit the truth. I found it an interesting metaphor about how many of the world saw the actions of the Germans and carefully turned a blind eye until it was thrust into their faces.
The setting was lovely – I felt like Larson gave us just enough detail to image the world of 1933 Berlin without overload. The addition of photos (especially the one of Dodd at his ambassadorial desk) added a sense of poignancy. I loved the addition of excerpts from the letters and diaries of Martha and Dodd. Out of the whole family, these two were in the most interesting positions within Berlin society and their varying commentary on the events building up to World War II added a great deal of depth for me. Martha’s romances and parties were fascinating because it gave me glimpses of men and women I have only heard referenced on the History Channel or in my dad’s reference books. To see snatches of their personalities was fascinating. The minor plot details of this book were especially crucial. They painted a far more accurate image of the stresses Dodd faced or the hierarchy and public mood of the German government than we would have experienced otherwise. Without the many details (like the stresses Dodd faced from the State Department, or the disdain the Undersecretary held for him), I would have felt like I was missing a crucial component.
Final Thoughts: Larson’s work has ignited a fascination within me to learn more: more about this time and the events that shortly followed. In the Garden of Beasts is a strong, fascinating book detailing the short, tense time before Germany began World War II.